Thursday, March 04, 2021

Cal Newport's newest book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload is out. I've been hearing about it off and on, mainly through his Deep Questions podcast, which I sometimes listen to while driving.

Based on what I have heard there, Newport's thinking on the issue of the overwhelm and distraction generated by everyone using email for convenience at work is highly original and, if it becomes influential, it could largely tame the problem. In fact, I am pretty sure the book contains ideas on how to mitigate the problem on one's own end, and push for better collaboration and task assignment/work flow management in one's work place.

If any of this sounds interesting or potentially useful to you, the New Yorker has published an excerpt from the book. From that excerpt, I think the following case study best captures the kind of solution Newport envisions and the kind of result it could provide:

Image by Christa Dodoo, via Unsplash, license.
[O]nce you move past just optimizing for speed or convenience, and begin instead to look for ways to minimize unstructured communication, numerous potential innovations emerge. The software-development company Basecamp, for example, makes use of regularly scheduled office hours: if someone has a technical question for a given expert, he or she can't just shoot an e-mail but has to wait until the expert's next office hours to make a query. In a book about Basecamp's workplace culture, published in 2018, the co-founders admitted that, at first, they were worried that their employees wouldn't put up with having to wait to talk to an expert, instead of just "pinging" the person in the moment. Their concerns were unfounded. "It turns out that waiting is no big deal most of the time," they write. "But the time and control regained by our experts is a huge deal."
Note that Newport has identified the source of the problem: countless individuals taking advantage of the convenience of email in an unstructured way. The solution is to use other, more appropriate ways to handle many of the things most people use email to do.

(The same principles and solutions also apply to other media, like chat apps and text messaging.)

The innocuous-sounding common saying, "Shoot me an email," captures this from the convenience perspective of the sender. But what about the receiving end? When dozens of people do this to you multiple times, and all day, every day, it is easy to see how this effectively becomes a machine gun, mowing down one's productivity.

-- CAV


Corrected two typos.

Five Pandemic Surprises -- to the Establishment

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

I resent people who view life this way trying tell me what to do. (Image by Edvard Munch, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)
Throughout the pandemic, I have avoided, as much as possible, the ignorant, relentlessly negative, and patronizing news coverage thereof from the media establishment.

I have found my own sources of information, and am glad to have armed myself years ago with an advanced degree in bioscience. So I was both better able to integrate knowledge than most journalists anyway, and much more likely to simply yell at the television set if I wasted my time watching it.

(My training made it easier for me: That is hardly to say that such training is necessary for someone to make sense of the events, as this long piece, by a layman, about super-spreaders, shows, albeit to an extreme degree: Weighing what experts say carefully is neither to treat their words like orders nor to dismiss them when they admit error or change their minds.)

Yesterday, I found a pretty good post-mortem of public health messaging by a reasonable person I had managed not to hear of until then, Zeynep Tufekci of the Atlantic.

I don't agree with everything she says here, but she makes lots of very good points. Her piece is titled, "5 Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Repeating."

I blame our dominant altruist-collectivist culture for all but the last of these five. And from Tufekci' s list, I have distilled -- in the form of single-sentence quotes -- five things that would seem to come as a complete surprise to the miseducated, entitled, and out-of-touch would-be philosopher kings, who made this pandemic much worse than it had to be.

My comments follow the quotes in bold:
  1. [M]ost people are already interested in staying safe from a dangerous pathogen. Self-interest, our greatest motivator and protector, is a mystery to those who fall -- hook, line, and sinker -- for the commonplace idea that selfishness is evil.
  2. A focus on explaining transmission mechanisms, and updating our understanding over time, would have helped empower people to make informed calculations about risk in different settings. Ayn Rand correctly attributes American "common sense" with being a remnant of Enlightenment influence on our culture. One needn't be an expert to understand or correctly apply advice from experts; one need only be honest and conscientious. (See self-interest, above.) Again, the fact that someone hasn't a Ph.D. or an Ivy League education does not make that person a moron.
  3. [S]haming people for failing to take sensible precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, do[es] not necessarily help. (That's putting it charitably.) This is what happens when people who do not really understand why they ought to do something adopt it for quasi-religious reasons. They don't know whether mask-wearing is desirable in a given context, or why it is, if it is. But they know a heretic when they see one.
  4. Risk can never be completely eliminated... This is projection in two dimensions: (1) They don't know what they're talking about, so their own fear of the unknown (which they assume we share) kicks in; and (2) they regard the public as even less competent than they are at understanding and weighing risk. And if you see others, not as individuals who own their own lives, but as members of a collective, it makes perfect sense for government officials to force them to take Pascal's Wager-like measures.
  5. [T]he way that academics communicate clashe[s] with how the public constructs knowledge. Yes. It's worse than it has to be, but... It's an issue of target audience, and they're writing for each other, not for laymen or, worse, advocates for left-wing causes -- on behalf of people they regard as hapless fools -- masquerading as journalists. (Don't get me started on how stupid most coverage of aerosol spread -- which practically never also mentioned dose or ventilation -- sounded or how worried I was that some politician would go to the races with new "precautions" based on it.)
All of these problems would have been bad enough on a cultural level alone, but our governments often failed to do things they should have done (such as ramp up contact tracing) or made things much worse (such as by implementing the unjust and ill-conceived Bush administration concoction of lockdowns). But the folks at the Ayn Rand Institute have already done a much better job of putting forward a positive vision of what a good government response would look like, so I'll refer the interested reader to that, once again.

It is interesting, and not in a happy way, to consider what this pandemic has revealed to us about the state of our culture (as manifest in its intellectual and governing classes), both in terms of what passes for knowledge and in terms of how society should be organized.

-- CAV

'Fighting for Fifteen?' You Are Being Used.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Sean Higgins of the Washington Examiner raises a question nobody else seems to have asked regarding the push to raise the federal minimum wage: "Why $15?"

Yes, the round figure is easy for cynical politicians to turn into a slogan, but the answer is more interesting and sordid than you might think:

Image by Fibonacci Blue, via Wikimedia Commons, license.
Unions picked $15 a decade ago because it was a "firm round number" that would help with organizing. The goal was not necessarily for workers to make that much, however, and, at least initially, they even offered a way around it. It worked like this: The unions pushed friendly local government leaders to raise their minimum wages to $15. These local ordinances included a major exception: Employers could avoid paying the minimum wage if those workers were unionized. In other words, the high minimum wage was intended as an incentive to get employers to not only drop opposition to unions but to seek them out so the companies could negotiate deals to pay workers less. [bold added]
Reading further, one will see that there are even economists on the left who acknowledge what many conservatives mistakenly offer as their primary argument against such a steep hike (in many places) to the minimum wage: It will cause unemployment.

The fact that the left is treating this fact of economic reality as a feature and not a bug should disturb, if not anger, anyone who would like to work or hire on their own terms: To the extent this crusade succeeds, your freedom of contract will be violated more than it already is.

Labor unions hold themselves out as guardians of workers' interests and here they are endangering the jobs of workers by supporting steep increases in labor costs. These costs could be in the form of artificial, government-mandated labor price increases -- or in the form of union dues and interference by a third party that has already proved itself untrustworthy.

-- CAV

Does Media Raving Help DeSantis?

Monday, March 01, 2021

Given what I know at this moment and considering the likely quality of any alternatives, I'd probably vote to re-elect Governor Rick DeSantis were the election held today. I would need much more information before I could say one way or the other about whether I would call myself a supporter, however qualified that support would be.

And therein lies ... major ... difficulty. Left-wing news media (but I repeat myself) are so bent out of shape by Ron DeSantis that they cannot see straight or contain themselves. The following excerpt from the New Republic, serves as a good example. It came up near the top of my search results when I queried one of my concerns, namely, Is DeSantis a Trumpist?

You can't see Nothing coming, but you can see Ron, broadcasting from its nerve center, mask hung ineptly, eyebrows arched like a dog that shit on the rug, face red and puffy like every press conference is a field sobriety test he's bombing in real time. The man is a fading echo of something more substantial. As we wait for the individual pandemic horror that becomes, for each of us, the eponymous one, DeSantis is all we have.
And no, I did not get a satisfactory answer to my question from the article. What I got instead was: plenty of bile, mixed with regurgitated left-wing talking points. And no, this Floridian, who is pro-mask, but anti-mask mandate is relieved that the mandate they say I'm "waiting for" never came.

That field specimen out of the way, my latest look at the news unearthed a good analysis of what I keep seeing nearly every time the governor comes up in the media. Said analysis appears in the Daily Wire, and is notable for indicating today's double standard regarding political reporting, and coming up with a good hypothesis for why DeSantis seems particularly to get under their skins.

First, the double standard:
Image by the State of Florida, via Wikimedia, public domain.
Now, mainstream media outlets have shifted their coverage to focus on a new smear against DeSantis, this time alleging corruption within the state's vaccination rollout process. NBC News last Thursday published an article titled "Florida governor accused of playing politics with Covid vaccine," criticizing DeSantis for prioritizing senior citizens, including Holocaust survivors and veterans. NBC accused DeSantis of mainly prioritizing possible Republican voters, but again, the elderly are the most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19, so it makes sense to prioritize them. As one prominent Republican Twitter user posited, "If DeSantis is only vaccinating seniors because they tend to vote Republican (per the media's newest conspiracy), does that mean that Cuomo was only endangering their lives in nursing homes to maintain larger voting majorities?"
No: I haven't heard that one either, at least in the news. And as for Cuomo's nursing home scandal, which I have known about for months, it only recently began registering as news in more prominent outlets.

And second, the hypothesis:
The media is clearly terrified of DeSantis because, to many Republicans, he appears to be the more presidential version of Trump. DeSantis is tough on the media, sets the record straight to his critics, and governs in a free-market conservative manner, while avoiding the rhetorical pitfalls frequently associated with Trump.

I'm no Republican, but DeSantis comes across as reasonable and competent in interviews. The pandemic revealed those qualities to be in very short supply among our politicians, so I'd be interested in learning more about someone who had those qualities.

But is DeSantis actually the free-market type I was under the impression he is (albeit one who panders to Trump's base), or is he a more organized, polished, and capable version of Trump?

My impression of today's hysterical media is that either would elicit the same feverish attacks and smears, despite the former being far more preferable to the latter. In this way, the media make it hard to make a wise choice. This can be particularly dangerous for the republic, given the high likelihood that either the foolish measures already taken due to the pandemic or the policy positions of the current administration alone could bring disaster and have Americans desperate for an alternative in 2024.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, February 26, 2021

Four Things

1. Cal Newport leads off a post on "Steinbeck's Productive Inactivity" with the following entertaining real estate note:

Good news: if you have $17.9 million available, John Steinbeck's 1.8 acre waterfront retreat is now for sale. It's tucked onto a grassy peninsula in Upper Sag Harbor Cove, and features a pool, a long pier, and two cozy guest cottages. Arguably most important is the hexagonal, 100-square-foot "writer's house" overlooking the water.
There's more at the source, including a photograph of the writer's house and a thought-provoking exploration of the languid workstyle the novelist used on the way to producing thirty-three books.

2. At Leaps Magazine is a piece covering the efforts of a medical researcher who is systematically organizing data on drugs being repurposed to fight Covid. His personal experience -- of having to find a drug to treat his own illness -- will inspire more than just confidence that he is the right man at the right time for such a job:
A swirl of exasperation and doggedness finally propelled Fajgenbaum to take on a crucial question himself: Among all of the already FDA-approved drugs on the market, was there something out there, labeled for another use, that could beat back Castleman disease and that he could tolerate long-term? After months of research, he discovered the answer: sirolimus, a drug normally prescribed to patients receiving a kidney transplant, could be used to suppress his overactive immune system with few known side effects to boot.
David Fajgenbaum's CORONA Project is tracking four hundred such treatments.

3. From a New Yorker article titled "Why Remote Work Is So Hard -- and How It Can Be Fixed" comes an early example of telecommuting:
The satellite-office idea didn't catch on, but it didn't matter: over the next decade, advances in computer and network technology leapfrogged it. In 1986, my mother, a COBOL programmer for the Houston Chronicle, became one of the first true remote workers: in a bid to keep her from leaving -- she was very good, and had a long commute -- the paper set her up with an early-model, monochrome-screen PC, from which she "dialled in" to the paper's I.B.M. mainframe using a primitive modem, sending screens of code back and forth. "It was very slow," she told me recently. "You would watch the lines load on the screen, one by one." The technology wasn't fast enough for widespread use -- hours could pass while the computers synchronized -- but the basic template for remote work had been set.
The piece is more than just interesting: It considers the idea that current attempts to exploit the advantages of remote work might well resemble an earlier shift in industry, namely the one from steam power to electric in terms of non-obviousness in applying the newer technology.

4. My favorite soccer team, Arsenal, were on the brink of elimination from the Europa League cup competition yesterday, when my new favorite player, Kieran Tierney, came up with a goal, as shown below.

Rico of the Arsenal-focused Highbury House blog comments:
A mention for Willian too for setting up Kieran Tierney but in truth, the Scotsman did all the hard work. Plus, he gave the team hope after scoring the first of the two goals we needed to achieve the right result. As said above, no big celebration, just get back to work and go again.
This was Tierney's first appearance in some time due to injury. And it is more than a relief to see him back.

-- CAV

The Etiquette of I Can't (or Won't) Eat That

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Miss Manners tackles a nice problem we'll all begin facing again as the pandemic subsides: dietary restrictions and strong preferences. Her three examples run the gamut in the dimensions of (a) the reason one is avoiding a particular kind of comestible, (b) the convenience of how one does so, and (c) etiquette, of course.

After first describing someone who hates carrots (and pretends to be allergic to them), a recent convert to vegetarianism, and a polite old man who has quietly navigated a (real and life-threatening) shellfish allergy his whole life, she offers advice for each.

The first two need her advice the most, and so I shall repeat it below:

Image by Thomas Park, via Unsplash, license.
The young gentleman is passionate that it is everyone else, not himself, who is at fault: They are either unaware of the cruel and destructive nature of the meat industry -- in which case he is doing a public service by educating them -- or they are indifferent to it, which crime pales in comparison to anything he could say.

The young lady, though not yet 14 years of age, has already realized that it is simpler to tell everyone she meets that carrots send her into anaphylactic shock than to admit the truth, which is that she hates them.
The first one we can now have hope of tamping down, starting with a question: How do you hope to win anyone to your cause with your accusatory insinuations? The second has an important drawback I hadn't thought of, as she explains later: "Your fib provides one more reason for callous hosts to dismiss assertions by people who really are in peril."

I'll remember that, because my daughter hates bread -- and has an older relative who hates cheese and pretends to be allergic to it. (In her defense, she does this at restaurants because she has found that she otherwise gets ignored too often. That said, it's a tactic I could see my daughter adopting out of ignorance.) I have always encouraged Pumpkin to simply be up front about disliking bread, but with the apparently bad model also around, it is helpful to be able to supply a very good reason for her not to emulate it.

And for the old man? I did not expect her to have advice for him, but she does. That, too, is worthwhile, so I recommend reading the whole thing.

-- CAV

Thinking About Thoughtful

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

In a recent Human Flourishing podcast, Alex Epstein interviewed Brian Amerige, formerly of Facebook, on the subject of "Overcoming the Problems of Today's Social Media."

I will admit that I started listening to this episode with somewhat low expectations: I knew that Epstein was involved with starting something like a social media app. Indeed, within the note file I have automatically generated whenever I save audio from YouTube, I had added, "This could either be very good, or amount to an hour-long sales pitch for that app."

This episode is both, with the latter being complimentary: This is what a sales pitch should be like. (And that could be the subject for a blog post or more in itself.)

The blame for my lowered expectations lies in part with the lousiness of most social media, the general state of our culture, and the frequency with which one hears about "Facebook (or Twitter), but for ..." My mistake was in failing to account for who was making the pitch, but I'll credit myself for not skipping this one. (I am speaking of Epstein: I was ignorant of Brian Amerige before this podcast.)

I'd copied the program notes to my notes file, but didn't get around to looking through them before I started listening to this approximately hour long discussion on a drive. If I had, I would have seen that they do a pretty good job of explaining what is discussed along the way. Here they are:

Image by Douglas O'Brien, via Wikimedia Commons, license.
In this episode of The Human Flourishing Project I bring on Brian Amerige, with whom I cofounded Thoughtful, to discuss the problems of social media today and how to overcome them. We discuss:
  • Is there any role for government in the content policies of social media platforms?
  • What content policy would make Facebook or Twitter a better "marketplace of ideas" -- or is that even possible given the purpose of these platforms?
  • What it takes to create a real alternative to mainstream platforms, and where Parler and Gab have struggled.
  • The purpose and evolution of Thoughtful, Brian and my platform that is "the one place on the Internet that's exclusively for thoughtful content."
  • How to get on the waiting list for Thoughtful.
[bold and minor format edits added]
Even for someone who doesn't leave wanting to try the new platform, the discussion is worth listening to, especially regarding the problems posed by the purposes of existing social media platforms and the difficulties of creating a content policy that would exist regardless of what purpose a platform would serve.

That said, it becomes clear that Thoughtful is anything but a "Twitter for the literati." My understanding is that, as social media, this will be a place whose users simply recommend good content. And as a content delivery system, it will facilitate easier consumption of longer-form content (such as by place-keeping) in chunks that fit over time into a busy schedule.

As such, it would help solve two big problems with the internet as it is today: How do I find worthwhile content? and When am I going to find an hour and a half to watch or read this fascinating video/think piece that I found during my five-minute break?

At this point, I would normally link directly to whatever site I am talking about, but Epstein and Amerige don't do so in the program notes and I get the impression that they are in some kind of testing phase or want or need to start small, so I won't do that here: If you're interested enough to so that, Epstein lets you know how to sign up for a waiting list within the podcast.

I think, but do not know, that this is going to be released first (or exclusively) on Apple, so any updates from me in the near term would rely on my (a) being invited to join and (b) installing it on a family member's iPad.

I'm not an Apple guy, but this is such an interesting and compelling take on social media, that I will likely borrow my wife's iPad to check it out, if and when I am able to do so.

-- CAV